Richard Baxter’s (1615–1691) 1,000+ page Christian Directory is a terrific resource for any pastor’s library, but it’s not the kind of book you zip through in an afternoon. In fact, it’s not the kind of book that ordinary folks like me will read from start to finish. The Directory is more like an encyclopedia of practical Christian counsel from a man widely considered the premier pastor of the Puritan era. Over the years, I have benefitted from pulling the mammoth Christian Directory off my shelf with no prior agenda and leafing through its double-columned pages until one of Baxter's headings catches my eye. Inevitably, I find what C. S. Lewis called “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through my mind” as I listen to this Bible-saturated shepherd from outside my historical context.
I was doing this last week when I stumbled on a series of Baxter’s warnings to new Christians. One way Satan would tempt them was “by filling your heads with practical scrupulosity.” Baxter had in mind the tender conscience that is obsessed with obeying Christ in exactly the right way, always fearful he or she is making a mistake, never sure the Lord is pleased with them. This individual “cannot go on for doubting every step whether you go right,” Baxter said. “When you should cheerfully serve your Master, you will do nothing but disquiet your mind with scruples, whether this be right or wrong.”
Most pastors can quickly identify a sensitive soul in their care who struggles with “scrupulosity;” many pastors themselves serve Christ joylessly for this reason. Baxter’s counsel struck me as beautifully balancing a passion for obedience with the assurance that God accepts our imperfect service through the gospel:
Your remedy here, is not by casting away all care of pleasing God, or fear of sinning, or by debauching conscience; but by a cheerful and quiet obedience to God, so far as you know his will, and an upright willingness and endeavour to understand it better; and a thankful receiving of gospel pardon for your failings and infirmities.
Be faithful in your obedience; but live still upon Christ, and think not of reaching any such obedience, as shall set you above the need of his merits, and a daily pardon of your sins. Do the best you can to know the will of God and do it: but when you know the essentials of religion, and obey sincerely, let no remaining wants deprive you of the comfort of that so great a mercy, as proves your right to eternal life.
(Richard Baxter, Christian Directory (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 2008), 53.)
Eric Smith is the pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah, Tennessee. He and his wife, Candace, have three children: Coleman, Crockett, and Clarabelle. Eric is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.